Tensions between student demonstrators and the Buenos Aires City government led by Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta have entered uncharted territory, with at least 20 schools throughout the nation’s capital now occupied by student-led sit-ins.
Those involved in the demonstrations have aired multiple grievances about the administration of the city’s educational system, but at its core, the movement has been most vocal about two key issues: the quality of school lunches, and the requirement of unpaid work-experience schemes that some parents and students view as exploitative.
The wave of student-led takeovers comes amidst a week of rising social unrest, in which union strikes have paralysed the nation’s tyre-producing industry, picketers have camped out on streets to demand greater social aid and government data confirmed that nearly four in 10 citizens now live in poverty.
Reacting to the sit-ins, Buenos Aires City Education Minister Soledad Acuña issued a stern rebuke to the parents of participating students, warning them they would be held financially responsible for the demonstrations.
“The adults responsible for those students who participate in the seizures must respond for the damages that the students and school property may suffer,” declared Acuña in a statement released on Monday, alluding to reported vandalism incidents at the Mariano Acosta School.
Acuña’s portfolio has already demonstrated its willingness to criminalise the sit-ins, issuing a letter to the city’s attorney general that demands the prosecution of parents who support the movement at the Mariano Acosta, and compensation to the tune of 1.5 million pesos for every day the institution remains closed. The Ministry has indicated that the penalties would also be brought against parents at other schools taking part in the protests.
For some parents, the prospect of legal action is, if not a hollow threat, at least outweighed by the impulse to lend an ancillary hand.
“As a parent, my primary concern — and responsibility — is ensuring my child can safely exercise their right to peacefully protest,” Tara Sullivan, a parent of a student at Lengüitas High School, told the Times. “If that means paying a fine, so be it.”
Sullivan is one of multiple Lengüitas parents who has volunteered to take shifts supervising the sit-in, filling a custodial void the Ministry claims has been created by the irregular occupation of buildings and alleged lapses in insurance coverage.
Students insist that the Ministry has seriously mischaracterised both the cause and form of the demonstration, and that Acuña is dismissing legitimate calls for change on the basis of party politics.
“The school has never been cleaner,” a student named Marina told the Times, standing outside the front gate of Lengüitas. “It’s never been as well-maintained as it is right now, since we’ve been sitting-in. We’re under a microscope, and they can take advantage of anything we do.”
The students at Lengüitas insist that the demonstration will continue until Acuña herself – not a representative or undersecretary – is willing to engage with them directly to address the issue of school lunches and unpaid labour.
“Students have received food that is rotten, that is infested with cockroaches, things like mouldy sandwiches,” Marina added. “For the work [experience] programme, some students end up washing dishes or preparing food for delivery... The only instance where the demonstration stops is where we have a direct dialogue with her.”
Both the issues of food quality and the nature of the city’s work experience programme have been the subject of considerable public controversy. In a recent interview with Perfil’s Jorge Fontevecchia, Acuña defended the Ministry by insisting that all students have access to “nutritional support” and that the work experience scheme is a necessary component of students’ “training for the adult world.”
A statement provided by the Ministry to the Times on Thursday insists that officials are open to dialogue, but only conditionally.
“The channels of dialogue were always open and remain so, but we do not dialogue with violence… The open school is what is needed for dialogue. In a democracy there are many instances and mechanisms to dialogue and demonstrate, but never closing a school,” said a spokesperson for the portfolio.
Not all of the sit-ins are being held by schools under the administration of the City government. The student centre of the prestigious Carlos Pellegrini Higher School of Commerce, for example, voted on Tuesday to join the movement.
The Pellegrini, which is dependent on the University of Buenos Aires, is not subject to the controversial food and unpaid work practices driving the sit-ins at other campuses. Nevertheless, many members of the student body feel compelled to show their support for the cause by organising their own shutdown.
“It’s important to show solidarity,” fifth-year and student council member Manuela told the Times. “This has been an issue in the city for years. We’ve seen it constantly, and when things reach a certain point, you have to do something.”
Acuña has levied accusations that the movement is an opposition ploy rather than a genuine grassroots attempt to better the quality of the city’s schools.
"What is clear is the participation of Kirchnerism behind these mobilisations because there are Kirchnerite leaders encouraging the takeovers of schools,” she alleged in her interview with Fontevecchia. “A manual began to circulate on how to carry out the taking procedure and the students had to organise themselves.”
While it’s true that youth-oriented political organisations do play a role in campus politics, as is the case with the Peronist-aligned La Creciente group at Pellegrini, the extent to which office-holding politicos have formally encouraged or coordinated the demonstrations remains unclear. Many students outrightly reject claims that they have been spurred into action by third-party groups.
“Acuña claimed that [the Kirchnerite youth organisation] La Cámpora was handing out manuals in schools on how to organise sit-ins,” said Mariana. “That never happened, at least not at Lengüitas. It never happened here, and manuals never circulated in La CEB [a group of student councils in Buenos Aires that meets on a weekly basis]. There are no adults in La CEB. Nobody is paying us or using us.”
A spokesperson from City Education Ministry provided the Times with a copy of a manual that it claimed to have received from a source within the schools, insisting that the document was being circulated by teachers as a means of instrumentalising students for political gain.
“Students told us that some teachers and directors sent them a ‘manual’ or ‘instructions’ with the slogans for the occupation of schools, the axes on which to organise the claims and how to carry out the occupations. These teachers are unionised and affiliated with UTE [The Union of Education Workers], which reports to CTERA [The Confederation of Education Workers] at the national level, a Kirchner-aligned union.”
“THE POLICE MAY NEVER ENTER”, and “NEVER SIGN ANYTHING WITHOUT CONSULTING LAWYERS”, were just two of the directives of the unsigned, undated document.